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Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place

4.12  ·  Rating Details  ·  6,377 Ratings  ·  572 Reviews
In the spring of 1983 Terry Tempest Williams learned that her mother was dying of cancer. That same season, The Great Salt Lake began to rise to record heights, threatening the herons, owls, and snowy egrets that Williams, a poet and naturalist, had come to gauge her life by. One event was nature at its most random, the other a by-product of rogue technology: Terry's mothe ...more
Paperback, 10th Anniversary Edition, 314 pages
Published 2001 by Vintage (first published 1991)
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Community Reviews

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Abe Brennan
May 17, 2007 Abe Brennan rated it liked it
Williams is an especially confounding writer, and part of it has to do with her voice—it’s very assured, but in that certainty lie the seeds of alienation and annoyance. It’s the assurance born of privilege, of money, and of an intact family. She can speak of democracy all she wants (and she does, especially in later works), but she’s at the higher end of the social spectrum—democracy (or any system) tends to work out for those people. Additionally, she tries too hard to wring some elemental tru ...more
Sharon
Dec 17, 2013 Sharon rated it really liked it
I hold tight hoping Terry Tempest Williams will devote an entire book to her grandmother. "Refuge" was a beautiful book of love, loss of loved ones, loss of self – and doing what you can to get it all back.

I love the opening of each chapter with the tracking of the elevation of Great Salt Lake during the flood of the 1980s -- how the lake began to embody everything for the author and to all of the people of Salt Lake City. This is a personal story about being part of a bad and a good world comm
...more
Crystal
Sep 25, 2010 Crystal rated it it was amazing
Yes, this is one of those books that I will list as "amazing" for me. I had a difficult time getting started into this one but I pushed through for several reasons. It was recommended to me by my grad school professor. So, of course, I wanted to read to understand more closely the mind of this mentor and I like the idea of the subtitle "An Unnatural history of Family and Place." I had not heard of Williams previously. Initially it had too much naturalist talk for me and then its other subject ma ...more
Christine
Sep 04, 2013 Christine rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
I have lived in Salt Lake City for almost a year. Its a place where family, faith and nature are interwoven into everyday life. Nature and family are important to me, organized religion not so much. I am not a Mormon. However, there is something about living on the edge of the Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Mountain Range that makes you want to reflect on your life and what it means to be close to nature on a spiritual level. Terry Tempest Williams's book, Refuge, is the perfect book for women ...more
Kristen
Aug 25, 2008 Kristen rated it it was amazing
Terry Tempest Williams is a local author with a transcendent story. Part memoir, Utah history, Audubon guide, and observer, Williams tells the story of the rise of the Great Salt Lake in the 1980's and its destruction of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Alongside this historical and ornithological account, Williams relates her own search for refuge as her mother and grandmother die of cancer, Both "down winder" victims of the nuclear testing in Nevada during the 1950s and early 60s. It is a ...more
Lauren
Jul 18, 2007 Lauren rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone who has lost a parent
Shelves: memoir
This book was listed as "suggested reading" for a nature-writing class that I took in college. The book is about the long, slow death of the author's mother from cancer. In Utah in the 50's, parts of the state were used for nuclear testing. Many people got cancer as a result. It's a sad book, but starkly realistic. Terry Tempest Williams is a naturalist, and I actually met her when I lived in Utah. She's lovely. This is a realistic American story of a family tragedy, how our environment can hurt ...more
Rebecca
Jan 11, 2010 Rebecca rated it it was amazing
Reading this book is like... watching the wetland landscape of your childhood home transform and disappear, and watching your mother and beloved grandmother succumb to cancer and die. Just like.

This book was -- stunning. Like a cattle prod between the eyes. And painful. Like crying sand instead of tears.

And so familiar (yes I lived in Utah, yes with all my ancestors' pioneer histories, yes with the pervasive blessing and burden of Mormonism, yes with the inspiring and healing landscapes of moun
...more
Virginia
Apr 01, 2013 Virginia rated it really liked it
Oh, a difficult book. Heart-rending and heart-lifting.

Refuge weaves together two tragedies: a catastrophic flood of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah and the death of Williams's mother from cancer.

Terry Tempest Williams is one of my hero-writers. The solid science of her naturalism is balanced by her mysticism. She writes desert prose from the desert: it can be harsh and unsparing, but there is so much beauty to be had.

Recommended for grievers and bird-watchers.
Jesse
To say this is very much out of my wheelhouse is an understatement; I only took it up because a colleague in my thesis-writing group is focusing her project on Williams. Nevertheless I was pleasantly surprised how immediately familiar the physical and mental landscapes felt—I too experienced a rural upbringing, snugly sheltered by religious belief and close familial/ community bonds—while at the same time I was constantly struck by how differently my own response to such environmental factors ha ...more
Ms. Dumonet
Sep 12, 2007 Ms. Dumonet rated it it was amazing
this is no conventional book by a conventional author- it is written by a fierce nature lover and serious nature writer. though nature writing is not my favorite genre, tempest williams reached me in a way no author ever has. i've turned to this book like i would turn to a best friend over the past few years- it's always as good as i remember it.
Kristy
Jan 20, 2010 Kristy rated it really liked it
My copy of this book is covered with notes and underlined passages. Williams uses her intimacy with nature to adeptly describe her intimacy with people, relationships, core beliefs, and life's meaderings. I identified with many of her images and experiences--not because I share her love of birds, but because I share her poet's heart. I am always thinking in parallels and comparisons. It was validating and liberating for me to read of someone else doing the same. I also have seen cancer death up- ...more
Amanda
Apr 29, 2011 Amanda rated it it was ok
There is something very different going on in Terry Tempest William's head than my own. Her mother is dying of cancer and she is a scientist who studies birds near Great Salt Lake.

"The pulse of Great Salt Lake, surging along Antelope Island's shores, becomes the force wearing against my mother's body. And when I watch flocks of phalaropes wing their way toward quiet bays on the island, I recall watching Mother sleep, imagining the dreams that were encircling her, wondering what she knows that I
...more
Alissa
Jun 10, 2014 Alissa rated it it was amazing
I first read this book in 2000, and I knew it was "good," but it didn't draw me in. I've taught her epilogue, "Clan of the One-Breasted Women," several times, and I'm rereading *Refuge* because I assigned it.

It is brilliant. Tempest Williams writes, about her mother's ovarian cancer--and that of her grandmothers and aunts--which Tempest Williams believes was caused by nuclear testing. But it's about more than that: it's about how the land and water are tied so closely to our bodies and the dest
...more
Kim
Jul 06, 2007 Kim rated it really liked it
This series of essays is written by a woman who happens to be Mormon. The fact she is Mormon seems to do more with geography in this book, than by choice. It is a wonderful series of essays because she is a naturalist in writing. The Salt Lake and the environment around there take on almost a divine beauty in the way she describes it. There are some poignant, wonderful tender essays about the land, and her mother and her writing style is just that - tender.
David Merrill
Mar 06, 2016 David Merrill rated it it was amazing
It's a long time since I read this book. When it came out, I heard Terry Tempest Williams interviewed and doing a reading from the book on NPR. At the time, it was pretty outside my wheelhouse as far as what I was reading, but the reading was beautiful and the interview so compelling, I bought a copy immediately. I think I dropped whatever I was reading to read it. Williams weaves the tragedy of breast cancer, the atomic testing that caused it and the natural world of the Great Salt Lake to crea ...more
Karen deVries
Sep 15, 2012 Karen deVries rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir-ish
With Mitt Romney running for President, Mormons are in the media spotlight, and this is how I encountered Terry Tempest Williams. I heard an interview with her on one of my favorite radio shows (OnBeing). The interview was so compelling that I looked for her books at a used bookstore, and this is the one they had. Now that I'm well into a few other books by her, this one seems like as good a place as any to start. Terry Tempest Williams is a conservationist,a writer, a daughter, and a Mormon liv ...more
Jennifer W
Oct 24, 2012 Jennifer W rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Why do I torture myself reading sad tales of mothers and daughters? I'm pretty sure it's a sign that I'm sick in the head. However, to redeem myself slightly, this one had an interesting twist. The author is a natrualist and conservationist. Her great outdoors is a wildlife refuge on the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Her passion, birds. During the tough years that her mother was battling cancer, she sought sanctuary in nature. Unfortunately for her, her mother wasn't the only sick one; Great Salt Lak ...more
Sally
Jan 11, 2015 Sally rated it it was amazing
Shelves: memoir
This book touched my soul. It became a meditation with each chapter posing new questions and sometimes answers for me.

Tempest Williams writes at the very beginning, I was raised to believe in a spirit world, that life exists before the earth and will continue to exist afterward, that each human being, bird and bulrush, along with all other life forms had a spirit life before it came to dwell physically on the earth. Each occupied an assigned sphere of influence, each has a place and a purpose.
...more
WM Rine
May 19, 2014 WM Rine rated it it was amazing
Wow. I have never read another book like this. Keenly observed. Brimming with intimate knowledge of a place, the bird habitat around the Great Salt Lake in Utah during a time where the lake was overspreading its usual banks. Multiple layers of metaphor with that incident, and the state of Utah's response to it, set against Terry Tempest Williams' mother's slow death from cancer. I've been on a journey like this with my own mother -- well, not half the journey Williams manages. The members of her ...more
Melanie
Apr 18, 2016 Melanie rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, 2016
For Terry Tempest Williams nature is a refuge. An avid birder, the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge is, for her, a place of wonder and grounding. In 1983 the Great Salt Lake rose to record levels, destroying the refuge and affecting numerous bird populations. At the same time, the author's mother was suffering from cancer. In gorgeous prose, Tempest Williams writes about two refuges - nature and her mother - that are being destroyed by natural processes.
Jamie
Oct 18, 2014 Jamie marked it as abandoned
There isn’t a word of dialogue that sounds like the way people talk. It sounds like the way people talk on TV, and maybe the rest of it is honest (is it?) but that’s dishonest and it’s getting under my skin right now.
Jessie
Sep 25, 2015 Jessie rated it it was amazing
My husband and I read this soon after it was published. It impacted our lives and helped us accept hard things. We bought this book in stacks and gave it to friends when a loved one died. It is a great book-- it helps you find your refuge. Read it.
Joshua Harms
Dec 15, 2015 Joshua Harms rated it really liked it
Beautiful, thoughtful, and achingly soulful. I would be missing out had I not read this book. Thanks for the recommendation, Katie!
Gail
Apr 18, 2016 Gail rated it really liked it
3.5* (rounding up to 4*)
This book was not as compelling as "When Women Were Birds" but was a nice companion to it. TTW has an interesting structure to her books .. a theme around which she works her narrative. This book, it's her life-long interest in birds and the bird refuge she often retreats to so she can connect to nature and refresh herself. In "Refuge", she chronicles the loss of the refuge to rising water in Great Salt Lake as well as the loss of her other primary refuges, her mother an
...more
Diane
Mar 31, 2016 Diane rated it liked it
The refuge Terry Temple Williams describes in this book is the Great Salt Lake and the Bear Lake Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah. While working for the Utah Museum of Natural History in the the 1980s,, the author studied the Salt Lake desert habitat and observed the birds who inhabited the area. In the 80’s the Salt Lake area rose to record levels, flooding the surrounding area, creating an environmental catastrophe and threatening the Salt Lake communities’ economies. Williams describes the ecolo ...more
Linda Mott
Jan 30, 2016 Linda Mott rated it really liked it
"Everything about the Great Salt Lake is exaggerated - the heart, the cold, the salt, and the brine. It is a landscape so surreal one can never know what it is for certain. ... Most of the women in my family are dead. Cancer. At thirty-four, I became the matriarch of my family." WOW... and the journey begans. Terry Tempest Williams loves four things, family, the dessert and the bird refuge and Utah. This is a story of destruction both environmentally and physically. Terry's journey is of the lan ...more
P.J. Lazos
Nov 14, 2015 P.J. Lazos rated it it was amazing
I remember being fundamentally altered when I first read Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams, altered in a way that I would never look at death the same again. Williams’ book was a symphony sprung from the page as if the earth herself had stirred to speak and once started couldn’t stop. The words, more like poetry than prose, were full of destiny and philosophy and hope. Williams was born a Mormon and while she may not always agree with all of her church’s teachings, there is more than a smattering ...more
Literary Mama
From "Essential Reading: Mother's Day" by Literary Mama staff:

Literary Reflections Editor Andrea Lani writes, "In Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, Terry Tempest Williams tells the story of her mother dying of cancer at the same time that the water level of Great Salt Lake rises due to abnormally high rain and snowpack levels, flooding out the habitat for birds in the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, where Williams seeks refuge and solace in her grief. Williams plaits her mother
...more
Shuhui
Jun 10, 2014 Shuhui rated it really liked it
A moving autobiography of a woman and her relationship with her mother. Her mother's cancer challenges yet affirms their connection to the natural world of Salt Lake and their Mormon faith. Through this difficult journey, Terry begins to understand the meaning of living in the present, death, and the ever-rising levels of Salt Lake, which threatens the bounty of wildlife nearby.

Some quotes:
“Why couldn’t I have respected her belief that the outcome mattered less than the gift of each day…We had w
...more
Shari Zimmerman
Aug 30, 2014 Shari Zimmerman rated it really liked it

Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place is a parallel account of the demise of the author's beloved Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge during years of unprecedented flood of the Great Salt Lake and the simultaneous story of her close-knit Mormon family's walk through her mother's illness and death from cancer. It's hard to say how two such sad subjects can create a book that brings so much hope. The sweetest part of the account is how Terry Tempest Williams and her mother and grandmother
...more
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Terry Tempest Williams is an American author, conservationist and activist. Williams’ writing is rooted in the American West and has been significantly influenced by the arid landscape of her native Utah in which she was raised. Her work ranges from issues of ecology and wilderness preservation, to women's health, to exploring our relationship to culture and nature.

She has testified before Congres
...more
More about Terry Tempest Williams...

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“Buddha says there are two kinds of suffering: the kind that leads to more suffering and the kind that brings an end to suffering.” 47 likes
“Today, I feel stronger, learning to live within the natural cycles of a day and to not expect too much of myself. As women, we hold the moon in our bellies. It is too much to ask to operate on full-moon energy three hundred and sixty-five days a year. I am in a crescent phase.” 28 likes
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